The parable of Lazarus and the Rich man is one that occurs in two worlds. The spiritual and the physical; those who have and those who do not. These different planes of existence provide the framework for the parable and they serve to inform us as to how the story will go.
A rich man who in life wants for nothing is juxtaposed by the poor man who begs at his gate. When both men die the rich man is in hades or hell and Lazarus is with Abraham. The space between them cannot be bridged.
This is a parable of polar opposites. However, if we examine this story it can inform our lives. Now when I examine a story I often like to do so from the perspective of the characters in it. I like to see who I can relate to, whose values, situations, problems and joys I can understand.
Two Worlds – Audio Sermon
The audio for this sermon is rather poor. Regrettably the microphone on my device was muffled by the cushion on the pulpit. I have attempted to remove the background noise and boost the volume.
When I consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus I have a problem. You see I am unable to identify with rich man. I have never been rich. Though I am sure there are some who consider my lifestyle rich and abundant, as it is described in the story I have not enjoyed in my own life the luxury I imagine the rich man has. I also am unable to identify with Lazarus, for I have never been poor and destitute the way that Lazarus is described.
I am also unable to identify with a figure like Abraham. The closest I could get is that like Abraham I also have two sons. But as presented in our story I am unable to identify with Abraham.
Who does that leave us?
The five brothers. Or perhaps if we were retelling the story we could say brothers and sisters. These are the ones that I am able to identify with, because the message of the story is for them. That is the message is for us and I have to ask, are we like the brothers?
Do we stand with the knowledge of Moses and all the prophets, do we stand with the knowledge that Christ himself gave us and do we heed the warning?
When the rich man dies his concern when he realizes he cannot save himself turns to saving his brothers. A laudable goal, but perhaps if he had listened to Moses and the prophets, perhaps if he had used his wealth to better ends he would not need to be so worried.
The rich man is an interesting character. We are given one sentence to describe him and it reveals a great deal, not only about the character but about his importance. This is what we learn, first that he is rich. Secondly, that he dresses in purple a sign in those days of wealth. Thirdly, that he lived in luxury every day of his life. Finally, that within the kingdom of God he is not important. The rich man doesn’t even get a name. Instead he is just an anonymous character.
Of course we learn more about the rich man. When he dies and ends up in hades he sees Abraham and Lazarus. Do you recall what he does? The rich man called out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus…” Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus.
The rich man does not address Lazarus, instead he entreats Abraham to send Lazarus off on an errand. To have Lazarus come and help him. The rich man refers to Lazarus as though he were not even there. It appears that the rich man thinks himself so high and far above Lazarus that he cannot even bring himself to speak to him. But what is curious about all of this is that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name.
The rich man knows exactly who Lazarus, the beggar at his gate, is. He knows his name, he knows what he has suffered, the rich man knows that he has ignored Lazarus in life just as he continues to ignore him in death.
It’s telling isn’t it?
Think on your own life for a moment.
Who are the individuals in your life who are poor, who are suffering, who are in need of compassion?
You may not, as the rich man did, know their name. But you know exactly who they are. We all do. Whether it is the beggar we pass every day on the way to work, the single parent struggling to get by, the street kid who won’t go home to an abusive situation, the drug addict, the pregnant teenager, the victim of bullying.
We know who they are. This story begins to ask us how we treat these people. And by the end it demands, by invoking Moses and the prophets, that we ensure these people receive God’s justice and compassion.
The question is do we do that?
We live in a complicated world. A world where more wrongs are done than rights. A world where the very system we live in and with reinforces the attitude that some will have wealth and some will not. It reinforces the stereotypes that we’ve been accustomed to and allows us to easily answer hard questions with easy platitudes and non-helpful answers. Theologian Scott Bader-Saye writes that we have created “Socio-economic and political systems that feed upon the sufferings of others, all the while keeping those sufferings invisible.”
Would the rich man’s brothers have listened to Lazarus if he had reappeared to them and warned them? If the rich man had gotten his wish, would it have even mattered? The brothers wouldn’t listen to Lazarus.
They had Moses and the prophets and they hadn’t listened.
We have Jesus Christ. Are we listening?
Friends, when it comes to the treatment of the poor, no one with a Bible can claim not to have known better.
Friends, our parable is loaded with language and images that speak to the call of ensuring that the plight of the poor is cared for. Consider who speaks on Lazarus’ behalf. Abraham. In Genesis God said the following to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you … you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Abraham, who receives this universal covenant from God advocates on behalf of Lazarus, because all people, no matter ethnicity, sex or social class are blessed. In our parable this is dramatically emphasized.
Do we take this story seriously? Or have we compartmentalized our lives?
The truth is we have created boundaries that we think protect us. That we think keep us safe. In his poem Mending Walls Robert Frost writes, “Good fences make good neighbors… Before I built the wall I`d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out.”
If we can just keep things at arms distance we’ll be all right. The problem is our parable tells us that this isn’t so.
Hundreds, thousands of people live among us here in Canada, a wealthy nation, and they need our help.
“Eleanor Rigby died at the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” Look at all the lonely people. People who our parable identifies as Lazarus, people who need love and compassion. People who long to be recognized as people, not as a problem or a social plight.
In her gripping book, Enrique’s Journey, journalist Sonia Nazario paints vignette after vignette of the abject poverty that exists just south of the U.S. border in lands like Mexico and Honduras. The poverty in these countries is staggering as is the extremes of behavior to which that impoverished state drives people. In Luke 16 we are told that the poor man Lazarus pined for mere crumbs from the master’s table or sweepings from his kitchen floor. What we sometimes forget is that such longing, such pining for food—ANY food—is no exaggeration or caricature.
In one particularly sobering part of her book, Nazario talks about how the children of Honduras are frequently reduced to scavenging for food in city landfills and garbage heaps. Here is how she described it:
“[Children] as young as six and seven . . . have to root through the waste in order to eat. Truck after truck rumbles onto the hilltop. Dozens of adults and children fight for position. Each truck dumps its load. Feverishly, the scavengers reach up into the sliding ooze to pluck out bits of plastic, wood, and tin. The trash squishes beneath their feet, moistened by loads from hospitals, full of blood and placentas. Occasionally a child, with hands blackened by garbage, picks up a piece of stale bread and eats it. As the youngsters sort through the stinking stew, black buzzards soar in a dark, swirling cloud and defecate on the people below.” (Enrique’s Journey, Random House 2007, p. 26).
Friends the picture I selected to illustrate our story this morning is of the rich man and Lazarus by Leandro da Ponte Bassano. It was painted in 1590. It illustrates the story nicely enough, but it glosses over the extreme levels of poverty that exist in our world today.
The picture I should have used is similar to the one that Sonia Nazario describes. A picture of the Guatemala City dump, where people wait for garbage trucks so that they can scavenge for food. When you get home Google it.
Friends, I want you to know that I believe that each and every one of us here today has a heart for the poor. I believe that each of us have in our lives given our spare change, bought a coffee and a bagel for someone on the street. That we have donated to the food bank, we have helped out at the soup kitchen. I believe our church does a good job in assisting with these and other ministries. Don’t get me wrong, these are good things. But I would challenge that they are not enough.
They are not enough, because though these efforts provide relief, they do not challenge the systemic issues and challenges within society that cause poverty both here in Canada and globally. I would urge you to continue to do what you already do. However, I would also ask you to prayerfully consider how the plight of the poor can be drastically and dramatically improved. What changes are needed, what sacrifices might be required.
Jesus came to proclaim the good news to the poor. We are the church of Christ.
We have what we need to live faithful lives; the question is whether we choose to do so or not. Amen.
Text: Luke 16: 19-31